those heady months
as a student in Tokyo
days blow by
as ginkgo leaves color
the streets gold
© Carmen Sterba
Higuchi Ichiyo is a prominent author and poet who struggled with dire poverty and championed the poor. Over one-hundred years later, in 2004, she was chosen to grace the Japanese 5000 yen ($50) banknote. It was the third time a women had been chosen. The other banknotes were the Empress Jingu (1881) and classic novelist Murasaki Shikibu (2000). Higuchi wrote about poverty-stricken men and women during the modernization of Tokyo at the end of the 1800s. One of her most famous novellas focuses on children who lived in the slums next to the “Pleasure Quarters” of Yoshiwara.
In The Modern Murasaki, author Rebecca Copeland relates, “Ichiyo’s struggle to become a professional writer was not just a woman’s struggle in a male-centered literary society . . . it was more complex: she wanted to write because she knew her writing skills were much more sophisticated than those of her peers, whether male or female.”
From Middle Class to Poverty
Higuchi had been educated at the Haginoya Poetry Conservatory in Tokyo; thus, she possessed a good background in the classics such as Genji Monogatari (The Tales of Genji), and wrote tanka. Her family was from the samurai class that was swiftly becoming impoverished, for their stipends had been cut off. When her father died, she felt responsible to support her mother and sister, but few jobs were open to women and their funds soon disappeared. Furthermore, they left their middle class suburb for a poor area where she set up a store. When her former classmate, Miyake Kaho began to publish articles in literary magazines, Higuchi followed suit.
Influence of Saikaku’s Earthy Style
“Besides her private struggles, Ichiyo’s prose diaries with tanka show her search for a new literary language that would do justice to everyday life in a Tokyo deeply involved in rapid Westernization and modernization,” according to Copeland. Though the literary community had embraced Western realism in novels, poetry and art, Higuchi did not read the newly translated Western literature, but continued to read Japanese literature in Tokyo’s Ueno Library where she discovered author Saikaku for the first time.
The Writer’s Epiphany
Even though Saikaku’s characters were one-dimensional and his language and themes were often vulgar, she was inspired by his colloquial language, wit and verve, resulting in a kind of epiphany. She became able to appreciate the essence of what had made the Heian women poets great. it was not their style, but their “passion, frankness and honesty.” Higuchi found a way to reform her literary language into an earthy style and was liberated from imitating classical women’s styles.
Authorial Voice for Marginal People
Higuchi is often introduced as the “Modern Murasaki” or “female Saikaku. Timothy Van Compornole has an apt description of Higuchi, “This frail, diminutive writer, who outwardly appeared dauntingly proper and conservative, whose demeanor suggested both wounded pride and a certain stodginess, and who was so soft-spoken before strangers as to be nearly inaudible, found a harder, more critical personal in her fiction, and used it to represent and give voice to marginal figures who might otherwise be socially invisible.” In spite of her poverty, she had the talent and independence to rise above her circumstances.
One of Higuchi’s most famous novellas, Takekurabe is an unrequited love story of children in the sordid outskirts of Yoshiwara (where she lived). The title, Takekurabe, has been translated both as Comparing Heights, Growing Up or Child’s Play. Movies continue to be made of this complex story with undertones from the classics. Midori, Nobu and Chokichi are the main characters:
Beautiful Midori is smart, innocent, but apprehensive about the future because her sister is already a courtesan in Yoshiwara; whereas Nobu is sensitive and introverted, the son of Buddhist priest; and tough Chokichi, who likes to bully Nobu, is the fire chief’s son.
Higuchi’s prose diaries added with tanka brought back the days of the popular poetic diaries for Japanese women since their heydays in the early 10th and 11th centuries since this kind of literature dwindled during the middle ages and returned in the modern era of Meiji. Parts of her diaries, and complete novellas can be found in the Shade of Spring Leaves by Robert Lyons Danly. Unfortunately, she died of tuberculosis at 24 years of age.
Copeland, Rebecca L. & Melek Ortabasi. The Modern Murasaki: Writings by Women of Meiji Japan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Danly, Robert Lyons. In the Shade of Spring Leaves: The Life and Writings of Higuchi Ichiyo, A Woman of Letters in Meiji Japan, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1981.
Van Compernolle, Timothy J. The Uses of Memory: The Critique of Modernity in the Fiction of Higuchi Ichiyo, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asian Center Press, 2006.